Why does it matter when languages die?

Ken writes:

The other day I bought K David Harrison’s When Languages die which promises to explain why it is a bad thing when a language becomes extinct. I hope he can. My thoughts on this topic have long been conflicted. On the one hand, I have this feeling that it is a bad thing, but I can’t seem to cash it out in terms of actual reasons. In terms of actual reasons, I think it’s not a bad thing.

First of all, I think we have to ask who language loss is bad for. I assume it is obvious that the language itself doesn’t get to count in this. If a language, as distinct from its speakers, has any rights, it should feel lucky it’s ever had any speakers at all. If you take this kind of realist position about languages, you have to think that in logical space there are gazillions of languages that were never that lucky. And we liberal elite Westerners don’t get to count either. We may like the abundant diversity of languages for its own sake, like we like living in exciting multicultural world cities, but this surely cannot ground an obligation on someone else’s part to continue speaking a language that may hold them back just so we can have the pleasure of knowing we live in a world with thousands of different languages. Clearly, it is the speakers of the endangered language themselves who get to count in this consideration. They’re the ones who have to make the decision whether to stick with the old language or embrace the new. We can argue the toss about the extent to which they choose to adopt a different language (certainly English speaking school teachers in the past used to beat children for speaking Maori; that’s clearly out of order), but if there’s nothing untoward going on, then if they start speaking a new language it’s because they want to.

One of the things that comes across in Harrison’s book is the extent to which language and lifestyle are inter-linked. He gives examples of how superbly adapted the vocabularies of indigenous languages are to the traditional ways of life and methods of subsistence of the people who speak them. The indigenous languages of Siberia, for example, are replete with very specific distinctions that make it easy to communicate efficiently about the characteristics of the reindeer herd, the quality of the snow, etc. etc. This makes it possible to see how giving up one language and adopting another can be part and parcel of moving from traditional ways of life to a modern one. They are interdependent, mutually engendering and mutually sustaining tandem changes. So the rights and wrongs of the loss of traditional languages cannot really be determined except in conjunction with the rights or wrongs of the loss of traditional ways of life.

Is it such a bad thing if indigenous and traditional ways of life fade away? I don’t see that it is. The transition from one way of life to another, like going from being hunter gatherers to working on construction sites, may have many individual casualties where you can fairly clearly say that those people would have been better off in the old days. But equally many people benefit from the change, and the succeeding generations have fewer and fewer problems with the dominant culture as they become progressively more assimilated. Once the assimilation is complete, you can’t say those people would have been better off in the old days, any more than you can say members of the dominant culture would have been better off if the transition had gone the other way instead.

Maybe linguistic and cultural diversity themselves are just a good thing. But why though? What does ‘good’ mean in that connection? I think we have to be careful not to slip into calling something good just because we would choose it over the alternative. A chocolate assortment is better than just one flavour of chocolates because it’s more interesting. That’s what we would choose. But can the ‘good’ belonging to ethical and political and cultural debates be used this way? If there’s a divinely commanded right way to live, an utterly homogeneous adherence to its strictures would be the only good way to live. Whether or not there’s a God, if there’s a single set of moral truths there’s nothing to be lost by homogeneous adherence to them.

(actually, I’m not sure that there is one set of moral truths we all must live by, but that wouldn’t affect my point above that it is not obvious that diversity per se is a good thing. It’s an interesting thing. It’s fun. I would choose it, but I’m not certain I’d be responding to the moral worth of it when I choose it)

Languages classify the world in different ways, according to Harrison, and even constitute a store-house of knowledge. He cites the example of a Namibian language that calls clouds ‘rain-houses,’ from which people can learn ‘for free’ that rain comes from clouds. A native American language classifies certain trout as salmon, which is technically correct (the trout belong to the same scientific genus as salmon), so the classification scheme of this language encapsulates real empirical knowledge from which we all can profit. And speakers of indigenous languages often have vast amounts of knowledge of the natural world, all in terms of their indigenous language. I don’t think these phenomena provide much of an argument for linguistic diversity. They definitely constitute benefits of diversity, but as well as real empirical fact, all languages preserve ignorance and superstition. For example, English classifies some fish as ‘trout’ when genetically they are salmon. The point is you have to take the bad with the good. If you give a language credit for the things it gets right, you should blame it for what it gets wrong. Since science is hard, we shouldn’t let our lexicographers be our scientists. Short of an argument that a language is more likely to embody facts than fictions about the world we live in, we cannot take the fact that they do turn up odd bits of beneficial new knowledge to constitute a strong reason to preserve languages.

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7 thoughts on “Why does it matter when languages die?

  1. This is an issue that bothers me too. Like you, I vaguely feel that it’s a bad thing if a language dies, but when I try to say why I start to flounder.

    Maybe it’s an aesthetic sort of thing. Or try this analogy: would it be a bad thing if, say, the game of backgammon were to die out entirely? (Hmmm, I’m using games as an analogy with language… please don’t read anything too Wittgensteinian into this, because I don’t think it’s what I mean!) For one might say that there are plenty of other games — chess, checkers, etc — and what’s so bad about one game disappearing? Well, that one game is perhaps interesting and valuable in and of itself, for reasons that seem more or less aesthetic. A tiny little piece of the variety in the world would be gone, and with it the pleasurable aesthetic/intellectual experience one could have while playing that game. Might the same be said for languages?

  2. Ken,

    The Babel myth in Genesis presents the multiplicity of languages as divine punishment for human pride. Fundamentalists would presumably perceive a shift towards fewer languages as a sign of forgiveness; providing the last language is King James English!

    The loss of languages would be welcomed by those seeking to globalize the sale of goods and services, it tends towards a more homogenous market, which is beloved of major corporations. A libertarian response to such globalization would cherish a diversity of languages, it providing some insulation against homogenization.

  3. Dot

    In genetics variety is healthy and is the big advantage of sexual reproduction – the genes keep getting mixed up so that new and useful combinations appear and bad genes are cleared out. Homogenization of languages and cultures might be the social equivalent of cloning: less trouble in the short term, but a dead-end in the long-term. When the energy apocalypse comes we’ll need people who know how to track reindeer.

  4. ken

    @ Gazza,

    I think aesthetics definitely has something to do with the feeling that it’s a terrible thing when languages die (certainly in my case). But I was looking for more than it just being a matter of taste (I think this is what I was trying to say with the unintelligible paragraph about chocolate selections and homogeneous adherence to strictures on the good life).

    @ Dot
    The genetics metaphor counts both ways doesn’t it? Couldn’t you take the death of languages as a sign of their unfitness?

    @ Ian
    Apparently a lot of descriptive field work in linguistics is done by a place called the ‘Summer Institute for Linguistics’ (I think, ‘SIL’, anyway), which is a US outfit that trains missionaries to spread the gospel to indigenous cultures. I think the training is ultimately with an eye to translating the bible.

  5. We the peoples tend to dislike it when anything dies, right? We want all species to survive, all languages and ways of life to persist, we don’t want to let go of burnt out friendships and lost loves, and on and on and on…

    Of course we especially dislike it when we perceive ourselves to be the cause of things dying. So I think these two basic facts about mankind collide in your languages examples to make a super sad combination. Our western ways are dominating others’ ways and as a result those cultures (languages) are fading. We don’t want their ways to go and we certainly don’t want to be responsible for their going.

    We mourn for lost ways and lost ages like we mourn for lost parents. Our literature is full of past ages mournfully recounted but never to be again. The cause of their decline is always included in the telling.

    I guess I’m not contributing much to the discussion as I’m not saying anything about whether or not it is good or bad that languages go, but I wanted to contribute a few thoughts on why we care.

  6. kenanddot

    Good thoughts Jeremy! I think you might be right. Things only have to be relevantly similar to something dying to trigger all the antipathy (so it doesn’t even matter that language death is only metaphor).

  7. Have you looked at the work of Mari Jones? http://www.mml.cam.ac.uk/french/staff/mcj11/

    I’d done (and am currently doing) stuff on this with regard to two things.

    (1) The idea of “Renaissance” (and, better, “renaissances”) as an idea of “lost and found / found again”, with particular interest in the finders’/re-finders’ degrees of awareness of what they’re doing and where they stand with regard to the “lost.” And at what point one is abe to observe that something now counts as lost.

    (2) Old Occitan. Case in point of the language-identity-politics nexus. First 1/4 of the 13th c.: quashed by the Northern French (I refuse to call them “the” French at this point in history…) at a time that coincides neatly with other nation-building and -centralisation phenomena. Last 1/4 through to about 1310: the final blow by Florentine Italian, again in a power-thing, with regard to Sicilian (and third-generation exiles/survivors of the aforementioned Quashing). Includes using Occitan material back against them. Material that ties identity and cultural value to language and “being poetic” – with Occitan and Florentine showing different perceptions of “value,” the latter based more in dominance. Which might explain quite a lot on one dying and the other not.

    On the 13th – early 14th c. front, see: Raimon Vidal de Besalu, Uc de Faidit, Terramagnino da Pisa, Dante.
    Recently, Agamben and Heller-Roazen (+ with reference to Jakobson); plus there’s a strong connection to the AHRC Poetic Knowledge project at Cambridge: http://www.mml.cam.ac.uk/french/poeticknowledge/.

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